The Road Not Travelled

No regrets, really; no question that I chose the right road, and that the following is in large part self-indulgent daydream. But still:

I’ve recently discovered YouTube. Here’s the game: you think of things from long ago that you really enjoyed but didn’t tape (didn’t have the technology or whatever), you look them up, and either find them or something similar (or better). Here are two examples from my teen years: Linda Ronstadt in her absolute country-rock GLORY doing country versions of two Cat Stevens songs from the concert TV show In Concert, Fill My Eyes and My First Cut is the Deepest. Other than these performances, she never recorded them. I thought I’d never hear them again. Enjoy, especially Fill My Eyes!

So far so good. Continuing to procrastinate and smiling at my good luck, I muse further: what about Billy Joel (in the white-hot piano-playing days, the early-to-mid 1970s), and my man Randy Newman? I strike gold again; these are not clips I saw originally, but are from German TV and feature the sort of piano playing that used to carbonate my blood: Randy Newman doing some New Orleans breakdown on My Old Kentucky Home, and Billy Joel doing Travellin’ Prayer, which the drummer seems to have taken just a hair too fast. (Watch the intrepid pianist yell “Ouch!” at one point, note that he can’t quite whip off the solo to spec, and see him forcing the RH to keep up by stomping the left down on the beats. It’s a hair faster than the album, and just a couple of inches over the danger line. Still, parts of the piano have clearly begun to melt by the time the song is over.

Piano playing like this—New Orleans flavored, with but with a technical level that most people associate with classical training—was, at one point, all I wanted to do. I never did; never devoted the time to really figuring out all the licks. My ear is pretty good, but not quite the “Jessica”-solo-by-ear* good. (Never was in a band; had no equipment and was usually not wanted. A friend once told me, later: “If you tried out for my band, Jon, you’d scare me to death. Guitarists don’t want that.”) Sometimes when I hear Rich Dworsky (on Prairie Home Companion) cut loose, usually on the Powdermilk Biscuits song, the desire to play like that is almost painful.

And I think, why is my time consumed by administrative matters, operational issues, chauffeuring, the day-to-day?

Then I wake up.

It’s healthy, contrary to what one hears, to cherish and nurture the corner of your psyche that will always be seventeen, that wants nothing but to get out there and WHALE on the piano, scattering listeners to the wind. Never mind that probably not one of those envied artists has had a stable personal life since youth, or isn’t in danger of getting bored now, or isn’t constantly looking over his shoulder—all completely incompatible with the way I have always wanted to live—nor (more to the point) that I surely never had anything like the intangible What It Takes in the first place. Never mind that reality at all! It is just such pleasure, such renewal—as I’ve noted before with Hamelin and Cziffra etc. performances on YouTube—to visit the pianistic wild side, and to remember it once again, and to see oneself in it. In this neighborhood, it’s the primal piano, revelatin’ from the mountain like thunder and lightning.

Ah, yes. Gentlemen, let us pray.

*”Jessica” is by the Allman Brothers, on the 1973 LP Brothers and Sisters, and the classic piano solo is by Chuck Leavell. I have it all now, except for one lick I can’t quite hear.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to The Road Not Travelled

  1. Jonathan—
    I always enjoys your posts about Randy Newman and loved the photo of you with him the other week.
    Didn’t realize you liked Rich Dworsky; he’s a big favorite (weekly) at our house. Did I menion to you once that you’re distantly related by marriage to his family? One of his Dworsky cousins married a Rogalsky.
    Are you still interested in Pentangle? We got a half hour BBC (I think) TV show of them from the late sixties. Let me know if you want a copy.

  2. Kip W says:

    Thanks for mentioning Cziffra. There’s lots of his stuff over there. Boosey & Hawkes had a couple of hardbacks of his arrangements, and there were so many notes, they could only get one bar in a page width. Too bad I couldn’t afford it; it’d be nice to have, just to look at.

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